California regions take grassroots approach to rebuilding

Bottom-up efforts from around California could prove a model in shaping a stronger future for the state as a whole.

Crosscut archive image.

The Silicon Valley of California. At top, San Francisco Bay. (Google Maps) Click to enlarge.

Bottom-up efforts from around California could prove a model in shaping a stronger future for the state as a whole.

With Becky Morgan and John Melville

Faced with 12 percent unemployment and a $26 billion budget deficit, California offers a perfect storm of economic disruption and public paralysis. This is the product of not only the national financial meltdown, but also a self-imposed governance crisis caused by years of ballot box initiatives as well as budget overruns.

However, below the chaotic surface, the grassroots have been active in responding to this dual economic and governance crisis. The seeds were actually planted in the 1990s during an earlier economic downturn. In regions as diverse as Silicon Valley and the Sierra Nevada, new collaborations of business, government, and community leaders were launched to address complex challenges spanning multiple political jurisdictions. Joint Venture Silicon Valley and the Sierra Business Council became models for other regions.

Next, the James Irvine Foundation provided seed funding to support similar collaborative regional initiatives in urban and rural areas across the state based on these models. Then some of the leaders from these regional efforts joined state government and began to incorporate this new regional approach into state policies, integrating housing, transportation, and land use planning, connecting workforce and economic development efforts, and promoting broad-based telecommunication strategies.

In 2008, the Morgan Family Foundation launched the California Stewardship Network as a civic venture, investing $ 1.5 million over 2 years in matching grants to 10 economic regions that agreed to focus on breakthroughs led by stewardship teams composed of business, community and government civic entrepreneurs.

Stewardship is defined as the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to us. The network focuses on “stewardship of place” — which requires simultaneous attention to the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of the region. Or simply put, stewardship equals personal responsibility for community-wide well-being, not advocacy of one interest over another.

While each regional team has developed its own stewardship strategy, all share a common approach. Typically, these strategies are (1) data-driven, (2) based on economic regions and industry clusters, (3) successful in sustaining the engagement of business, (4) effective at integrating economic, social, and environmental considerations, and (5) innovative in their approach to public-private partnerships in implementation. The teams represent the diversity of California ranging from San Diego and Los Angeles in the South to the Silicon Valley and Sacramento Valley, the Fresno Region and the Central Coast to the Sierra Region, Sonoma and Butte Counties and the Redwood Coast near the Oregon Border. These regional groups meet on regular basis and exchange best practices (see

These regional stewardship teams are currently focusing on economic development, education and green prosperity. A prime example is the Los Angeles County’s first-ever Consensus Economic Strategy, which was developed through a process that engaged of over 1,000 business and civic leaders.

The convener was the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, a regional business group, but the plan has been adopted by the County Board of Supervisors and 88 cities including the City of Los Angeles, as well as the labor and environmental communities. The strategic plan commits its partners to specific actions to invest in an educated workforce, implement a 21st Century Infrastructure, promote smart land use, enhance quality of life, and create a business-friendly environment.

Other regions have developed green prosperity strategies including a “Climate Prosperity Strategy” for promoting clean energy alternatives while reducing greenhouse gases in Silicon Valley and a “Green Capital Alliance” in the Sacramento Region. Sonoma County’s team has focused on closing the achieving gap for Hispanic students through mentoring and other programs. Butte County has taken a similar approach. The Fresno region in the San Joaquin Valley launched regional jobs and human investment initiatives.

Building on these grassroots results, the regions are now working together to affect state policy. Leaders from the network drafted a shared agenda for action titled "Thriving Regions Lead to a Thriving State"; its elements were then communicated to candidates during the 2010 election cycle.

As Jerry Brown now returns to the California governorship, he must confront a challenging budget deficit and record high unemployment as well as long term governance challenges. His top three priorities stated during his campaign were as follows:

  • We must get California working again — both its government and its people.
  • We need an honest budget and a government closer to the people.
  • We need leadership that can attract investment and new jobs, promote quality education and protect public safety.

California’s dual crises could be an opportunity for transformation. At the December 2010 California Stewardship Exchange, regional stewardship groups considered the following questions: Does the grassroots stewardship approach that has been emerging from the bottom up, based on a recognition of regional diversity and the importance of collaboration, provide a solution to the both the economic and governance challenges facing California? Is this a practical way to help bring government closer to the people, with stewards communicating to state government the needs of their diverse regions through an ongoing dialogue and partnership?

Sometimes it takes a crisis (or two) to generate a fundamentally new response. In California, a grassroots movement has been underway for several years, and is now culminating in a bottom up transformation of several economic regions.

At the same time, new state leadership is looking for innovative ideas and partners. If stewards step forward at all levels, the next few years could produce a new state-regional model for both California’s economic recovery and long-term governance.

As Margaret Mead said many years ago: “a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Distributed by

John Melville and Becky Morgan collaborated with Doug Henton in writing this article. Melville is president of Collaborative Economics. Together with Doug Henton he helped launch Joint Venture Silicon Valley and other regional collaboratives in California. He is a consultant to California State Workforce Investment Board working with regions in California on innovative collaborative workforce strategies. Morgan is president of the Morgan Family Foundation and was the first president and CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley. She was state senator from Silicon Valley and a county supervisor from Santa Clara County. The Morgan Family Foundation funded the California Stewardship Network.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors